Victoria Ward

Victoria Ward

I finally got to see The Revenant. This is a movie I was really looking forward to as it was made by the guy who did Birdman and I thought that movie was brilliant. Also, it has a bear in it in a pivotal scene and I loves me a bear taking it out on humans. The movie was so so with acting that ranged from crazy to Yosemite Sam and action scenes so unbelievable that there were times we laughed out loud but… it was entertaining and that bear scene is something to behold.

So… why am I talking about this nutty movie with an extensive gore scene with a bear? Because I so rarely see casual violence I agree with and the premise of the film reminds me of Canadian culture and how artists here feel about their lives. Canadian cultural identity seems to be on a constant cycle of reincarnation. We discuss it, it goes away, we don’t care, it comes back… and so on. Our individual success stories are as sparse as legends of people being lost & surviving the wild. Only a year ago this summer we were in one of these cultural desert moments and treated to an election that was desperately trying to be ‘all American style’; it was really long, had loads of xenophobia and no mention of working people or minimum wage (looking at you NDP).

And then the rain turned to rainbows with Justin Trudeau and we accepted refugees, stood by our Aboriginal peoples and was promised more help for our cultural efforts.  We came back from the dead. I believe this moment of revenant – ness came to its climax mid summer when the cult band the Tragically Hip performed live from their hometown on the CBC our gov’t funded broadcaster. The last time people got together across the country to watch something this Canadian was the final game of our hockey series against Russia in 1972. Back then our teacher pulled the tv into our classroom and we watched in quiet patriotic style, riveted by the prospect that our strong and free nation would win over the tyranny of communism. Yep, it was a thing.

Most of the time Canadians feel like Leonardo Di Caprio's character in this scene.

Most of the time Canadian artists feel like Leonardo Dicaprio’s character in this scene.

The Tragically Hip event however wasn’t sports or even politically motivated. The concert became a spontaneous outpouring of love for music. And it was made by a bunch of nice, kinda’ boring guys from Kingston, one of which is dying at the far too young age of 52 from a rare form of brain cancer. They were playing a last series of live concerts specifically for their fans who have always been loyal and slavish in their devotion. But something happened over the summer, we all wanted in on this love fest. The CBC, an organization recognized universally for their provincial decision making had the entire final concert broadcast from coast to coast with no commercials. Our PM showed up and his hug with lead singer and visibly ill Gord Downie went viral for the authenticity of affection or man love depending on how you swing. As someone who usually hates this kind of big media sentimental love in, I was surprised at how deeply moved I was. This was real. This was a visceral moment that played out as quasi patriotic joy – and even the most cynical among us felt it.

It was a distinctly cultural event founded on a local, grass roots movement. Hip fans created a three decade long cultural industry. Without caring whether their band became as ‘big as Neil’ or that worse musical acts with a less devoted audience made way more money and became way bigger in the US (and now I have to write Nickelback in my blog), Hip fans came whenever the band called, bought their cds, and generally gave our Canadian Radio & Telecommunications Commission great relief as the Hip songs played continually on the radio my entire adult life – until radio went ‘extinct’. I believe it was because of this kind of sterling integrity and authenticity we rallied behind their dying front man and watched with wet eyes as he sang about “that time in Toronto with that checker board floor”. In fact it is lines like this, and unless you are a Canadian music fan you may not understand the reference, that made us all come alive again.

What the Hip did was show us that art is local and made by community, and that being a huge internationally known entity does not engender loyalty or even… fans.

There is a great lesson to be learned from this. You create work and build your audience through the relationship you have with them; you set your sites on working within that community and find joy in this simple approach. Vying to be some kind of global phenomenon that is rootless and invincible isn’t the surest path to impact. Stitching a creative life together with a love of the legends and stories from our shared history and always doing your very best for the people who support you can also be a recipe for making history.

Check out Gord Downie’s new graphic/music novel Secret Path about the residential school system in Canada. He is making the best of the time he has left; very inspiring. 

Victoria Ward

Victoria Ward

A quick Google search will give you the definition and origin of the word landscape. A Middle Dutch word born out of putting the word land with ship (the figurative use of the word as in ‘condition’) and evolving into what we would now describe as an area of land or a depiction of a region of the natural world. Ultimately the word is now associated with paintings that illuminate geography, mostly those done by artists in the 19th and early 20th century.  And, for better or worse it also makes a lot of people think of images of trees, mountains and lakes.

I was at a conference last year when I happened to sit in on a presentation by a group of people who suggested that landscape painters were actually a patriarchal problem that eschewed depicting Aboriginal people because they were for the most part racist.  That anyone drawn to work about the natural world without Inuit or Aboriginal people in it was in denial of colonialism’s ruinous history.  I was deeply offended however I don’t get publicly offended that often and these people were nice and young so I let it pass. But, I am an artist dedicated to depicting the natural world and I have spent two decades theorizing on it, philosophizing about it and basically creating what would amount to Phd on the subject via the hundreds of books/essays I’ve read and the thousands of hours I’ve spent in  the wilderness. I actually moved into the forest to be embedded in my subject matter.

Regardless this opinion, that landscape art work is ultimately just a rouse to push a white, racist agenda regarding the natural world is just that, an opinion. It’s a theory as good or bad as any other and as it might slowly gain traction in Canada, you will no doubt read more and more about this nasty practice of spending time outdoors, soaking up the Earth’s bounty and interpreting it with oil and acrylic on canvas and wood.

At one time the only threat I had to the intellectual rigour of my work was by hobby painters or those that assumed that landscape painting was a hobby art.  When I told some people I created landscape art work they would immediately say they did too and would regale me with tales of how once or twice a year they would sit in their backyard and paint their peonies. If I told other artists they assumed that I sell poppy paintings on Etsy. If I told curators they’d roll their eyes and then politely say that they have storage areas full of paintings of lakes. And then there were members of my art community who would discuss on social media at length how sick and tired they were of the Group of Seven and aren’t we as a nation over this whole ‘our wilderness is amazing’ thing? Over time I disengaged with people about what I do because it became harder and harder to describe as I was steadily pushed into a defensive position. I honestly think the worst thing an artist can do is defend what they do. I will never defend what I do as my art work isn’t for anybody but me and those who are drawn to it.

Fishing scene by Quvianatulik Parr, 1963, Cape Dorset.

Fishing scene by Quvianatulik Parr, 1963, Cape Dorset. The book I had as a child is long gone but this is the kind of drawing that I remember.

Although I find this ongoing negation of what I have chosen as subject matter (just try getting a grant with a description of wanting to make art about Lake Superior Provincial Park) depressing it’s more like a ‘I know I’m going to die one day’ kind of depressing. Because when I get out and find what I want to paint I care less about the world I will ultimately need to navigate and count on for income and more on what is in front of me, beneath me and part of me. I generally live in the present and find that the administrative tasks that put food on my table a necessary evil and so I’m very happy when I am working.

Therefore I have no need to go on Facebook or Twitter and make statements like, “landscape painting is akin to medieval religious painting with the land as god and not unlike the pagan tradition” or “landscape art work has radicalized footprints which can be seen in Breughel for instance as a way of making the church look inferior/secondary to nature” or that “landscape artists put human influence having a central role in the natural world’s degradation/evolution like Turner’s later work” or that “Courbet showed a defiant sexuality through landscape” or that “resource based industry was widely documented through landscape painting” or that “a lot of landscape work influenced what we have now as the modern environmental movement” or….. as you can see I would spend all my time “defending” landscape work and I don’t do that.

My first experience with landscape art work was with Inuit drawing. My mother loved art work made by Inuit artists, volunteered for Inuit issues and longed to visit what is now Nunavut. These art works told a story of people completely immersed in their landscape, and the need to heed to it, to revere it and to ultimately see their dependence on it as deeply spiritual without the dualism (humans/nature) we seem to have and continue to have. I am forever grateful that I was given this opportunity to explore 2D work that was so rich in poetic and philosophical underpinnings while also being narratives – in many ways this is still what I try to do.

But I don’t draw people or animals and I never will.  I am the figure in my landscape paintings. Like landscape artists before me I just try to pull into my psyche who I am in the wilderness; I’m not an intruder, I’m not a tourist, I’m not in denial of shared histories, I hold the wild in me and I interpret this experience in art, nothing more.

Image from the Canadian Museum of History